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  • What, Precisely, is the Issue with “Elites”?

    Posted by David Foster on March 24th, 2011 (All posts by )

    Conservatives/libertarians and especially Tea Party supporters often speak about “elites” in pejorative terms. Why is this? I doubt that many among us would argue in favor of mediocrity (a la the senator who famously argued that mediocre people also deserve representation on the Supreme Court) and/or of extreme egalitarianism and social leveling. Indeed, quite a few outspoken conservatives and libertarians could themselves be considered to have elite status in view of their professional, economic, and/or scholarly accomplishments. So what is the critique of elitism all about?

    Several factors seem to me to be at work…

    1)There is a perception that the multiple ladders of success which have existed in American society are increasingly being collapsed into a single ladder, with access tightly controlled via educational credentials

    2)It is increasingly observed that these credentials actually have fairly low predictive power concerning an individual’s actual ability to perform important tasks and make wise judgments about institutional or national issues. The assumption that school-based knowledge generally trumps practical experience seems increasingly questionable as the sphere of activity for which this assertion is made has expanded, and is indeed increasingly viewed with suspicion or with outright disdain.

    3)It is observed that people working in certain fields arrogate to themselves an assumed elite status despite the fact that their jobs actually require relatively little in terms of skill and judgment. Ace of Spades cites a history writer on class distinctions in Victorian England:

    She noted, for example, that a Bank of England clerk would be a member of the middle/professional class, despite the fact that what he did all day was hand-write numbers into ledgers and do simple arithmetic and some filing work and the like, whereas, say, a carpenter actually did real thinking, real planning, at his job, with elements of real creativity. And yet it was the Bank of England clerk who was considered a “mind” worker and the carpenter merely a hand-laborer.

    Ace suggests that “that distinction has obviously persisted, even in America, with the ingrained sort of idea that a low-level associate producer making crap money and rote choices on an MSNBC daytime talk show was somehow “above” someone making real command decisions in his occupation, like a plumber. And this sort of idea is very important to that low-level producer at MSNBC, because by thinking this way, he puts himself in the league of doctors and engineers.”

    (The same prejudice can be seen in terminology currently used in discussions of community colleges and technical schools: that these institutions are needed to train people for “mid-skill” jobs, with the implied assumption being that people with 4-year degrees automatically have higher-skilled jobs than people with fewer years of seat time. Really? An undergraduate sociology major performing some rote job at a “non-profit” is doing something requiring higher skills than a toolmaker or an air traffic controller?)

    4)Marriage, and even serious dating, seem increasingly to follow class boundaries, with “class” being defined very largely by educational credentials. Part of this is due to expanded educational and career opportunities for women—the doctor who once would have married his receptionist may now marry a female doctor—but a good part of it is, I think, due to the very high valuation placed on educational credentials. This phenomenon, of course, tends to lead to the solidification and perpetuation of class barriers.

    5)People who have achieved success in one field too often assume a faux expertise in unrelated fields, as with the actor or singer who is credited with having something worthwhile to say about foreign policy or economics irrespective of lack of study/experience in those fields.

    6)People who have achieved success via the manipulation of words and images have increasingly tended to discount all other forms of intelligence…for those who attacked George W Bush as “stupid”, for example, the fact that he learned to fly a supersonic fighter (the F-102, not the most pilot-friendly airplane ever designed) was a totally irrelevant piece of data.

    7)Markers that have played a role in assessing class status in many societies–accent and manner of speech, in particular—seem to be becoming increasingly important. This factor has a lot to do with the hostility directed toward Sarah Palin as well as that directed toward George W Bush. Had these two individuals spoken in the manner expected of one who has attended boarding schools and expensive eastern colleges–regardless of the academic quality of those schools and colleges–their critics would still have probably disliked them, but the hostility would have lost much of its hysterical edge.

    8)There is concern that those providing direction to institutions increasingly bear little of the burden for their own failures. This is especially true of government–particularly the legislature and the courts, where a bad decision will generally have no negative consequences whatsoever for the individuals making it and of those who run the K-12 government schools–but also to a disturbing extent in the business world, especially with regard to those corporations with close ties with government and those in the financial sector.

    9)There is concern that the people directing institutions increasingly have life experiences totally different from their employees and customers. Many of the “robber barons” of yore had actually started as low-level workers, and regardless of how much they exploited their own workers, they could understand and identify with them in a manner that is very difficult for someone whose path has involved 6 years of college followed by a series of fast-track corporate assignments.

    10)There is a perception that members of one profession–lawyers–play a vastly disproportionate role in our political process, resulting in public policies that benefit that group and that often fail because they reflect an excessively-narrow worldview and set of life experiences.

    So, I don’t think the issues being raised are really about the existence of elites so much as they are about the current structure of many elite and faux-elite groups and the characteristics and performance of those who currently inhabit them.

    Thoughts?

    (Some related posts: Credentialists gone wild, America’s ruling class, the dictatorship of theory)

     

    43 Responses to “What, Precisely, is the Issue with “Elites”?”

    1. Gray Hat Says:

      Insightful, lucid, concise — and, I believe, true.

      Thank you.

    2. Alan Says:

      Well done – but I believe you missed the biggest point: The elite feel they have the unique right and privilege to dictate how the rest should be allowed to live. The principal us subsidiarity is foreign to them and they view the world upside down relative to the way the founders intended the US to work. Power flowed from the people to the institutions, not the other way around.

    3. Gray Hat Says:

      An additional factor: the ethos of narcissism and self-dealing which prevails at the top. By and large the robber-barons felt more responsibility to society, and to a code of honor, than today’s elite.

    4. c. sheen Says:

      drive the drones from the hive!

    5. David Foster Says:

      Re the true value of many of these educational credentials, see this article on college cheating…not about students *doing* the cheating (although there’s certainly plenty of that) but about students *being cheated*.

    6. Joseph Somsel Says:

      One of the great accomplishment of American society and government has been the repeated replacement of its elites without bloodshed. However, the current bunch have developed ways to ensure their position and consolidate their powers.

      This might be acceptable by or maybe un-noticed to the bulk of the citizens IF the elites delivered a better life and increased libery to everyone, or at least the fair opportunity for a better life and freedom. But the issue is coming to a head because our current bunch is leading us all off a cliff and it’s increasing obvious to all.

      Since they are doing such a BAD job and won’t give up the reins of power, they will either be forced out or they will devolve into a permanent tyrannical class. Example – Wisconsin. The unions won’t give up power even if it results in public bankrupcy.

      Every society of any complexity has an elite but we Americans will not stand for a RULING class.

    7. Vlad Konings Says:

      I have heard many discussions hereabouts about The Revenge of the C Students. This is the idea that those with real ability go into technical fields; those who lack it become managers and supervisors … and thus wreak their revenge on the nerds.

      I believe there is an element of factual basis for this. Almost all positions viewed as elite — including even some positions in the sciences — require a certain amount of social skill. Popularity, if you will. Nerds tend to really resent the idea of popularity as a measure of worth, for obvious reasons.

      Me, I’m with the nerds. In more ways than one.

    8. renminbi Says:

      Fine work.

      I think a good part of the problem comes from the political process in the “liberal democracies” which are certainly not liberal in the classic sense and which are increasingly not democratic- we see this egregiously in the case of Obamacare and in the EU, a corrupt institution which is unaccountable for all practical purposes. We see the contempt the ruling class holds those of us supporting these parasites. The reason the system doesn’t work, I think, comes from rational ignorance on the part of the voter and also from from the fact that the political class, as it got more entrenched, discovered that it had less and less to fear from the public. Eventually the public will see the fraud, with what consequences God only knows.

      At my high school, Brooklyn Tech.,in addition to academics, I had to study Free Hand Drawing, Drafting, shop courses in Power Lab, pattern making and foundry. There is nothing like directly dealing with material reality to help keep one’s feet on the ground. Theory without empirical confirmation is worthless. We see “science” like climatology based on little more than computer models and unreliable data (and a desire for grant money). This is corrupt and decadent. Most of our “elite” are understand little more than how to buy each other off, with our money.

    9. Michael Kennedy Says:

      In the Codevilla essay, he makes clear that the “ruling class” are self appointed and the credentials they use to separate themselves from the rest are increasingly suspect. I submit that I would be very proud of a child of mine who was accepted to Harvard or Yale. I would be more proud of one accepted to MIT or Cal Tech but that is another topic.

      I would also be aware that my child would have many classmates who did not get there the way he or she did. What were Obama’s grades at Columbia ? There have been surveys of the knowledge held by seniors at Harvard and even some comparing freshmen and seniors. There has been some discussion over the year about grade inflation at schools like Harvard and some, like Vann Jones, gave the game away by saying how pleased he was to be accepted by Yale Law School because there were no grades.

      The credentials of the ruling class are questionable. We see examples of startling gaps in knowledge. Do Austrians speak Austrian ? How do you pronounce corpsman ? Did FDR go on TV in 1929 to reassure the people after the stock market crash ?

      Some of this is funny but where did these people get the idea that they are qualified to rule ?

      The unions in Wisconsin are a little different issue. You cannot pull a tick off a dog, or yourself. They bury their heads so deep that it will be pulled off unless they are given a noxious stimulus that causes them to pull their heads out of the host’s flesh. Such a stimulus is being applied. They know they are not elites.

    10. David Foster Says:

      Vlad…note that 33% of F500 CEOs were undergrad engineering majors.

      Perhaps the theory that managers were often the “C” students was true at one point; I don’t think it is true currently in most industries.

    11. Jim Bennett Says:

      Good point about Dubya. I was never a big fan of his, but I doubt most of those who sneered at his “idiocy” could have lasted two sessions in basic flight ground school, much less learn the F-102.

      The libertarian/conservative resentment of the elites is resentment of a self-designated elite whose privileges are created by and dependent upon the state. Anybody who obtains wealth or fame by his or her own efforts in free exchange, toward that person I have no resentment, and freely give my congratulations.

    12. Tom Holsinger Says:

      IMO this is very much a traditional Western culture bourgeois reaction against so-called elites which despise bourgeois virtues. See Deirdre McCloskey’s _Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World_.

    13. Steve Korn Says:

      Elites earn their pejorative label two ways: their advanced skill in language and social skills that may have nothing to do with achievement in society, and presumption they know what’s best for everyone else

      It’s the presumption of “know what’s best” that offends the senses

      For decades now under both Democratic and Republican leadership, we’ve had run-away regulations imposed by people who possess supreme arrogance, e.g., new appliance efficiency standards designed by attorneys without consideration of cost or cleaning effectiveness, inexpensive light bulbs soon to be banned, toilets that don’t flush, Ethanol in gasoline that wastes more energy than it saves and contributes to world hunger, Endangered Species Act putting 10,000s of people out of work around the San Joaquin Valley in CA, and laws under consideration that will ban smoking in cars with children present, etc.

      The list is quite long, and creeps up on us one rule at a time. It seems it takes a pragmatic non-Elite to “just say no”

      These kind of laws are advanced by people with a supreme self confidence that they know what’s best for us—they are the elites and they deserve the pejorative label

      We’d all be better off if we followed the advice of Ben Franklin: public service should be for a moment in time. Not a career. Serve, and go back to what you were doing.

    14. JB Says:

      Number 6 speaks to the David Brooks and David Frums within conservative punditry.. While relentlessly trashing Palin for her Lack of credentials, the former pays homage to Obama because of the crease in his pant leg. If that doesn’t reek of elitism, I don’t what does.

    15. reader Says:

      Yes, most of these things are true, and are correct explanations of the *justified* criticism of so-called elites.

      But I must be sincerely contrarian, just to provide balance. Are all the people doing this criticizing motivated by dispassionate logical, legal, and practical analysis? No, some are motivated by good old-fashioned bigotry, just as you find in any population.

      I happen to have what most people would consider a very high-status educational background, and I’m also very poor, and have worked in factory labor, and similar settings. I *never* mention my educational background and I make deliberate attempts to conceal it (to the point of limited lying). I do this because I’ve heard more than my share of raw bigotry from co-workers against “college boys,” “eggheads,” “prep school pussies,” and similar classes of people. It’s probably not far from what you might have heard said about black people in an all-white working environment 50 years ago.

      So let’s not get all romantic about the noble working man standing up to the latte-sipping cheese-eating New York Times reading elites. Their views about the proper role of government may be right — I’m a small-government libertarian Tea Partier myself — but some people achieve the right result through vulgar motivation which doesn’t merit praise. (I’m still waiting for someone to call out a few of the writers over at The American Thinker for their raw class bigotry. They are hurting a good cause.)

    16. Michael Kennedy Says:

      Reader, I’m afraid your thoughts are a bit disorganized. Possibly what you interpret as bigotry against “college boys” is simply disgust at someone wasting opportunities that the blue collar workers you encountered would give a lot for.

    17. Euan Says:

      what people find elitist is the notion among some that they are possesing of such superior knowledge to the average man that they have the right or prerogative to take his money “for his own good” and spend it on his behalf with the only choice he is given in the matter a vote every now and again.

      its the attitude that society must be centrally planned and administered by the wise elites for the benefit of the man on the street because he is apparently too much of a fool to run his own affairs how he see’s fit.

    18. David Foster Says:

      I think Reader is clearly correct that there are environments in which there is prejudice against those who are educated or aspire to be educated, typically based largely on a mixture of jealousy and conformism. My sense is that there is less of this than there used to be. OTOH, there are also an increasing number of environments in which college/grad-school graduates consider *themselves* as members of an elite because of their degrees (often obtained in pretty soft subjects) and are quite bitter that the society at large does not see them (or pay them) the same way. And while the tenured professor is unlikely to throw a brick through your window, however far to the left he may be, the guy with the masters degree (and $100K in student-loan debt) who is working as a barista at Starbucks, and sees little prospect for anything more, might do just that.

    19. james moylan Says:

      I have a web site where I research stocks under five dollars
      I have many years of experience with these type of stocks. I would like to comment about elites many of the people in the media and also politicans I think in many ways are out of touch with reality when someone can make 25 thousand dollars giving a speach at some collage or university how can they be in touch with an average american who in some cases is constantly worried about having a job tomorrow. having medical insurance paying their mortgage the elites who ever one would consider to be elites do not for the most part have any of these concerns.

    20. TeeJaw Says:

      Referring to a group of self-absorbed egotistical dweebs as “elites” is not meant as a compliment and it sure doesn’t indicate that anybody believes there is anything “elite” about them. It indicates that they are snobs who think of themselves as elite and smarter than everyone else. Except they’re not. They’re an annoyance to be made fun of by those who agree with WFB that 100 people chosen at random from the phonebook would likely do a better job running the government than the faculty of Harvard Law School. The credentialed but unaccomplished class are the “elites.”

    21. Liz Says:

      In addition to their presumption of “knowing what’s best” for the rest of us, elites often claim exception for them selves. It’s the elites who are always preaching conservation while jetting all over the globe, cajoling us to pay more taxes while not paying theirs, lecturing us on healthy eating while pigging out on ribs, etc. They want to engineer our lives to meet their high standards and values while they live life to the fullest.

    22. JP Says:

      MK says:

      “I would also be aware that my child would have many classmates who did not get there the way he or she did. What were Obama’s grades at Columbia ? There have been surveys of the knowledge held by seniors at Harvard and even some comparing freshmen and seniors. There has been some discussion over the year about grade inflation at schools like Harvard and some, like Vann Jones, gave the game away by saying how pleased he was to be accepted by Yale Law School because there were no grades.”

      Well, with respect to the law school grade issue, the top law schools generally aren’t going to fail anyone out. The classes are all graded on a curve (like engineering), so it’s all in how you do when compared with everyone else. The grades only create class rank. Unlike chemical engineering (my undergrad major), a T14 law school is *not* going to fail you out, so I’m not sure there’s much purpose in grades in law school.

      Do law school grades relate to much of anything? If not, I would prefer that all law schools use Pass/Fail.

      There were only a handful of law firms that rejected outright my desire to apply to them because of my bottom half GPA (at Duke Law). Unless “elite” law schools are going to start failing people out, there’s little point in grades. And I was skipping a lot of class and cramming for exams. I didn’t really care much beyond that I had gotten into Duke Law.

      Remember, Yale is one of the top three law schools. Harvard and Stanford being the other. Grades are basically irrelevant because of the status those schools have in the legal profession. So what point does grading have at that level?

    23. Stan in Sugar Land Says:

      Destructive vs. Creative Elites
      Likely late to this thread on elites, but read the blog last night, thought about it before I went to sleep and when I woke up this morning, also thought more on it as I went for my morning run. I differentiate between “destructive” and “creative” elites rather than the comments in the blog. At 4:30 AM this morning I found a link to a review of a 1982 book by Mancur Olsen: “The Rise and Decline of Nations: economic Growth, Stagnation and Social Rigidities.” The link is at Big Government; per the reviewer the book describes the causes of the diminution of England during the 20th century. His point was that these are the same forces at work in the US in today, he seems to have a valid point, I’ve added the book to my “to read list.” Quickly, my view is that the American nation is exceptional not because the people are exceptional, i.e. statistical all groups have similar intellect, energy and creativity, but because the founding documents gave the nation exceptional liberties 1) freedom, 2) property rights, 3) a predictable rule of law and 4) religious freedom. My categories of destructive and creative elites are defined as: Destructive – those who either intentionally or because of ill-education work to curtail these 4 items and controll your life, and Creative – those who generally work to restore or improve these items so your life is your own. Below is my list of 10 destructive elites or groups and 10 creative elites or groups, plus a category for those who pimp and whore for self-serving rules, laws or influence and then arbitrage the resulting governmental stupidity for personal gain (typically things like NPR, many businesses, Planned Parenthood, Acorn, Universities, etc). Also, I have a special category for Milton Friedman zbout whom I have mixed feelings.

      We could debate the lists below, endlessly, but I have my reasons for the inclusions

      10 Destructive “Elites” No particular order
      1. Obama
      2. Reed
      3. McCain
      4. Bloomberg
      5. Ted Kennedy
      6. Krugman
      7. E J Dionne
      8. Tom Friedman
      9. Couric
      10. Maher
      10 Creative Elites, again no particular order
      1. Thomas Sowell
      2. Walter Williams
      3. Victor Davis Hanson
      4. Koch Brothers
      5. Rush Limbaugh
      6. Sarah Palin
      7. Paul Ryan
      8. Scott Walker
      9. Bill Bennett
      10. Bill Buckley
      Pimps and Whores
      1. Jeffrey Inmelt
      2. George Soros
      3. Warren Buffet
      Special category: Milton Friedman, one of my intellectual heroes, a great economist, but introduced the idea that gets us to the government and economic destructiveness being experienced today – Payroll Deductions, great in time of war but economically destructive in more normal times. If people actually knew, in real terms, how much their real wage or cost of employment is and had to write checks for these items each month they would soon take to the streets. Here I mean all compensation that affects employment costs – FICA(employee+employer), all taxes, all health insurance(employee+employer), vacation time, employer savings/pension contribution, unemployment insurance, etc. Here is my estimate of the paycheck effect: Say a person has a salary that today is denominated as $50,000/yr, likely his employer labor burden is in the $65-70,000 range. Likely the take-home is currently in the $35,000/yr range. If the employer cost is $70,000/yr, then every month our employee gets a paycheck of $5,833/mo and if from that amount had to immediately writes checks for $2,916/mo. This would bring the cost of the various benefits into focus and cause the question to be asked 1) What am I getting for this? 2)is there a better and cheaper way to accomplish the same thing? The effect would be the end of controlling destructive elites.

    24. David Foster Says:

      A related discussion of elites and elitism at Maggie’s Farm: Am I an anti-elitist elitist?

    25. Shannon Love Says:

      Reader,

      . I do this because I’ve heard more than my share of raw bigotry from co-workers against “college boys,” “eggheads,” “prep school pussies,” and similar classes of people.

      While reverse snobbery is always an issue, I think most of it arises from self-defense and experience. When someone mentions their superior educational background in a work environment, it is almost an attempt to dominate others. Many people without good educations have experienced situations in which someone tries to “pull rank” with their education even though their education has little to do with the job at hand. I have no small experience with this dynamic coming as I do from a rural working class background.

      I will note that hostility to educated people is usually inversely proportional to the educated person’s practical skills. You don’t see working class people sneering that doctors are “prep school pussies”. If you ever see the interactions on a construction sight you will see the workers listening intently and with respect to the pronouncements of engineers, they will listen more warily to the business managers, they will role their eyes at the lawyers and they will laugh at the college grad students who show up to picket something.

    26. Shannon Love Says:

      People who have achieved success via the manipulation of words and images have increasingly tended to discount all other forms of intelligence…

      I think this elitism driver has become more powerful in the last century owing to the explosion in communication media of all types. We spend a large part of our lives looking at the products of those who manipulate via words and images. TV, radio, movies, video games, the internet, hardcopy materials etc have all become bigger parts of life, even bigger that printed materials were in previous centuries. We move through a constant haze of messages produced by these manipulative intellectuals.

      We experience most of that greater world i.e. the “big” issues of the day, through the filters provided by the manipulative intellectuals. This gives them enormous influence over the rest of society. If history has taught us anything, it is that humans translate “powerful” to “high status” and then “morally superior”.

      Moreover, since the manipulative-intellectuals have a high degree of control over what the rest of us see of the world, they get to control our perceptions of the manipulative-intellectuals themselves. This creates a feedback loop in which the status and power of the manipulative-intellectuals rises. This dynamic applies to the manipulative-intellectuals themselves. Since childhood they are trained up to believe the marketing spin of the manipulative-intellectuals and as adults they begin to tell each other how wonderful they are. They live in hall of flattering mirrors were everyone is telling everyone else how wonderful they all are as a group. It is no wonder they evolve into a self-defined elite who scoff at everyone else.

      It certainly doesn’t help that pronouncements of the manipulative-intellectuals can seldom if ever be proved conclusively wrong. Manipulative-intellectuals deal primarily in “fuzzy” issues with a large number of inputs where cause and effect are hard to objectively quantify e.g. foreign policy. This eliminates the autocorrection that more empirical fields benefit from. Manipulative-intellectuals quickly develop a view of history in which people like them have always been right and always will be.

      That is the very definition of an elitist attitude.

      The internet has done a great deal to undermine the elitist reflecting chamber by giving voice to the majority of the population for the first time in a century or more. Now elites find themselves unable to control the flow of information and the construction of the narrative. Now ordinary people who are expert in specific knowledge domains can expose the elites for the intellectual paper tigers they are. College students with video cameras can expose the corruption of elitist institutions.

      The tide is reversing. It won’t strand the empirical elites i.e. those whose predictions are subject to physical predictive testing but it will leave the self-annointed manipulative-intellectual elites thrashing in the mud.

    27. Michael Kennedy Says:

      Remember, Yale is one of the top three law schools. Harvard and Stanford being the other. Grades are basically irrelevant because of the status those schools have in the legal profession. So what point does grading have at that level?

      If I were confident that students were admitted to those schools by a competitive mechanism, exams or undergraduate grades, I would be less concerned about the fact that there is no way of determining whether those students are learning or coasting. What has happened in the past 30 years is that affirmative action filled many “elite” schools with students who were the beneficiaries of ideological theories. When many of those students began to fail, the next step was to eliminate the grading mechanisms that were failing them. There have been discussions of the grade inflation and the erosion of standards but the fact that most faculty members are part of the political left muted any criticism.

      I am suspicious of the qualifications of the self appointed elites and that is only one of the reasons.

    28. David Foster Says:

      Re word/image manipulation, Neal Stephenson made what I think is an important distinction between *explicit text-based* communication and *graphical/sensorial/iconic* communication..see my post here.

      The Internet, and specifically the rise of blogging, has given a new lease on life to text.

    29. David Foster Says:

      Also, I think that Internet video will potentially have a decentralizing effect on the movie industry, IF marketing and funding problems can be solved.

      Snag Films is an example of a venture in this space.

    30. Kyle Says:

      When conservatives and libertarians speak of the “elites,” they mean the people who think that because they have been educated at some respected institution, that this means that they and only they are qualified to make the important decisions about society and that the average person is a complete fool. That is justifies them taking a person’s money “for their own good” as someone mentioned above, and that society must be centrally-planned to a degree because the average person is too stupid to know how to live their own lives.

      Criticism of “elites” I do not take as meaning criticism of people who are literally elite in their fields, and we want people who are elites in the positions that require it. But just because Joe Average didn’t graduate from Harvard or Yale doesn’t mean he is a fool who needs some group of “experts” telling him how to live his life or that they know how better to govern the country. That said, of course you wouldn’t want Joe Sixpack in charge of say monetary policy at the Federal Reserve or in the position of Secretary of Defense or whatnot. But Joe Average doesn’t need a group of bureaucrats treating him a like a complete fool either who needs to be “ruled.”

    31. Shannon Love Says:

      Kyle,

      Criticism of “elites” I do not take as meaning criticism of people who are literally elite in their fields, and we want people who are elites in the positions that require it.

      Yes, what we want is empirical elites, people who have proved competence in some particular area of endeavor. We respect specialist who have demonstrated they can perform in a particular domain.

      What we reject is the idea of the globally superior individual i.e. someone whose grasp of everything is superior to that of ordinary people. Leftism is based on the idea that such individuals exist, that they are altruist and that they can be trusted with near arbitrary power.

      Many Leftist elites cannot even make accurate or useful predications in the their own area of supposed expertise. Some knowledge domains are just not mature enough for anyone to use them to make useful predications e.g. economics, political “science”, sociology etc. Yet, much of Leftist ideology is based on the idea that such soft domains produce information with predictive power equivalent to that of hard sciences or engineering. The Leftist then demand that the rest of defer to the supposed authority of Leftists in those domains just as we defer to hard scientist or engineers.

      It is an attempt for non-emperical intellectuals to ride the coat tails of the empirical intellectuals.

    32. TeeJaw Says:

      I like to think that the “elite” universities like Harvard and Yale are not that elite at all and that given the political correctness and liberal drivel that reigns supreme in the halls of ivy, the students are probably not learning anything useful. And if any of that is true it would be the most true of their law schools since the legal profession has long ago proceeded beyond liberalism to straightforward leftism, in my view at least.

      However, I can’t square these notions about elite universities with the Bar Exam pass rate the elite law schools. While my own law school has a high rating it’s Bar pass rate is in the low 70”s percentage wise, as are most law schools. Harvard, and I think Yale as well, consistently posts Bar pass rates of its graduates in the high 90’s.

      The Bar exam is more of a memorization test that an intelligence test but I don’t think a law school could simply drench its students in critical legal theory for three years and still have 95% of them pass the Bar. There must be some legal training actually going on there, much as I cannot fathom it.

    33. Michael Kennedy Says:

      I have two children, graduates of non-elite law schools, who have a 100% pass rate in four bar exams of different states. I don’t doubt that the people who are accepted to those schools are capable.

      http://www.ilrg.com/rankings/law/index.php/1/desc/Bar

      It’s interesting to see the LSAT scores. Somebody is doing a pretty good job with students of lesser aptitude.

      My problem with self described elites is the number of them in the news media who are five years out of college with no real world experience who pontificate on all subjects, mostly politics, from positions that suggest they know more than they do. Then there are people like Geithner whose career has been in government and NGOs with a history of slipping in and out of mysterious positions. But he did meet Barry Sotero many years ago.

      Banking at the highest level; has become a branch of government anyway.

    34. Michael Kennedy Says:

      Case in point:

      http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/27/fashion/27YOUNGPUNDITS.html?_r=2&pagewanted=1

      It requires a moderately strong stomach.

    35. Madhu Says:

      “I’ve said before, I’ve regretted using that phrasing,” Mr. Klein said. “What frustrated me was so many people talked about how long that health care bill was, but didn’t take the next step to say, ‘O.K., I really need to work hard to explain it to people.’ Usually when people talked about the bill’s length, they talked about it not as part of their job, but they tended to see it as a failure of someone else. And that’s not the way I look at complicated policy. When I look at complicated policy, it’s up to someone like me to explain things clearly. If that takes a lot of time, so be it. I have a blog, and I’ve got a lot of space.”

      – Ezra Klein, from the NYT article that Michael Kennedy linked.

      Good grief. People in Washington listen to this stuff? That’s not Ezra Klein’s fault.

      The first point is to read the bill, see if you understand it, and go through it bit by bit to see what will happen in reality as opposed to on paper. Sort of like all of those waivers….

      The lack of humility in that crew is interesting. They don’t know what they don’t know. I doubt that will ever change. That is what happens when you write for a living and nothing else.

      When I was a faculty member at Harvard Medical School (Instructor, I know, but instructor is eminently respectable when you are primarly a working physician within the system and not a researcher. Plus, I went to Iowa State. Some people work their way up the ladder without fancy credentials….) and working for a Harvard teaching hospital, a lot of us docs were confused about the Massachussetts health care bill. We thought premiums would go up. We were entirely vindicated.

      The juiceboxers lack the humility of experience.

      – Madhu

    36. Madhu Says:

      I didn’t finish my thought about DC: that experienced adults take them so seriously says a lot about the sort of adults that exist in that town.

      They are too lazy to dig into the bills themselves….

      Lazy, lazy, lazy.

      – Madhu

    37. Madhu Says:

      Oh, I oughta give up the onparkstreet thing and just use Madhu….

    38. David Foster Says:

      Madhu..Even if Young Ezra Klein is actually able to decode the 2000-page bill and comprehend what it will require under which circumstances, that does not mean that he will understand how it will actually *behave* in the real worlds of healthcare and consumer behavior.

      A good corporate lawyer will help his client understand exactly what a proposed contract requires of each party, but will not arrogate himself the decision as to whether a particular requirement…”all orders must be completed within 3 weeks after receipt of order and shipped by air freight at vendor expense”, for example…is a good idea–that decision belongs to the people knowledgeable in manufacturing and distribution and responsible for profitability. (And in my experience, most business lawyers are very careful to distinguish “commercial decisions” from purely legal ones.) Yet too many of the “Word People” seem to feel that their ability to understand a complex document also implies their ability to comprehend the effects of the policy which it puts in place.

      Far too many of our CongressCreatures lack significant experience outside the worlds of politics and law…but given that so many of them are lawyers, one would think that they would at *least* be able to do a workmanlike job of document drafting. Recent examples suggest that they can’t even do this.

    39. onparkstreet Says:

      Yup, DF. The knowledge problem and the laws of unintended consequences.

      That the bill is 2000 pages long is an important point. He doesn’t seem to understand WHY that would be an important point.

      Say, who writes the actual bills? Who is reponsible for, say, page 43, etc? Who penned the actual words? Is it some congressional twentysomething staffer?

      (BTW, did you see how quickly I went to drop my credentials? Poser! That’s what this crazy world we’ve built up does to you, I’m telling you! Also, I know lots of very bright and accomplished physicians that are genuinely elite in their respective disciplines but pretty much believe anything in the NYT or the New Yorker or on NPR. I don’t think it’s about worthless degrees. It’s an attitude, it’s rent-seeking posing as enlightenment, it’s a lot of things….it’s complicated.)

      – Madhu

    40. David Foster Says:

      “bright and accomplished physicians that are genuinely elite in their respective disciplines but pretty much believe anything in the NYT or the New Yorker or on NPR”…maybe to some extent this sort of thing is driven by brand identity as a substitute for knowledge. If you have to pick someone to handle a high volume of important shipments and you don’t know anything about logistics (and aren’t interested in learning) you’ll probably select FedEx or UPS. If you *do* know something about logistics, or are at least willing to dive into it, you might find a better/more-economical supplier. Similarly, people who haven’t really learned much about political affairs and history are probably eager to latch onto a brand.

      The problem is that the reality behind the brand at NYT, NPR, etc isn’t analogous to FedEx or UPS but rather to a revived Pony Express with alcoholic riders and elderly, worn-out horses.

    41. David Foster Says:

      Madhu…also regarding people who are very good in the fields but narrow outside of same (and I don’t know if this is a fair characterization of the physicians you mentioned or not)….I’m reminded of something written by the historian Meinecke about support for Naziism in Germany and perhaps applicable to other totalitarian movements in other places:

      “It often happens nowadays…that young technicians, engineers, and so forth, who have enjoyed an excellent university training as specialists, will completely devote themselves to their calling for ten or fifteen years and without looking either to the right or to the left will try only to be first-rate specialists. But then, in their middle or late thirties, something they have never felt before awakens in them, something that was never really brought to their attention in their education–something that we would call a suppressed metaphysical desire. Then they rashly seize upon any sort of ideas and activities, anything that is fashionable at the moment and seems to them important for the welfare of individuals–whether it be anti-alcoholism, agricultural reform, eugenics, or the occult sciences. The former first-rate specialist changes into a kind of prophet, into an enthusiast, perhaps even into a fanatic and monomaniac. Thus arises the type of man who wants to reform the world.”

    42. Joseph Somsel Says:

      Of course “elites” compete one against another. Case in point – journalists against engineers.

      Journalists know next to nothing of what is going on at Fukushima just like they knew nothing about TMI. Yet they actively attempt to shape public attitudes against it and the technical people who have provided massive amounts of electrical power from the plant, safely, for the last 40 years.

    43. Consul-At-Arms Says:

      I’ve linked back to you here: http://consul-at-arms2.blogspot.com/2011/03/re-what-precisely-is-issue-with-elites.html